Christians and Muslims Locked in Dispute over Prayers in Córdoba

The Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain, was originally built by Muslim moors but has been used as a church ever since the reconquest in the 12th century. Now a Spanish Muslim has suggested an "ecumenical transformation" of the building. Leo Wieland reports

The minaret of the Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain (photo: Wikipedia Commons)
Centuries since the Moors were expelled from Al Ándalus, the North African Muslims who have returned as legal and illegal immigrants are staking historical claims

​​Mansur Escudero is a demonstrative worshipper. Because the Bishop of Córdoba wouldn't allow him to pray inside the Mezquita mosque-cathedral, the converted Spaniard recently laid out his prayer carpet outside the walls of the world-famous building. Escudero, the president of Spain's Islamic Council and a psychiatrist by profession, took off his shoes, raised his hands towards Mecca and prayed until the arms of the cameramen surrounding him went numb. He achieved what he had wanted: a religious and political demonstration.

And it was also a trial of strength. Centuries since the Moors were expelled from Al Ándalus, the North African Muslims who have returned as legal and illegal immigrants are staking historical claims. Their Spanish fellow Muslims are supporting them, to the embarrassment of the Catholic church. In Córdoba, once the "Mecca of the Occident" under the Caliphs, the Bishop has been head of the Mezquita since it was recaptured by Christians in 1236.

The current bishop, Juan José Asenjo, whose heart Mansur Escudero claims he wanted to "soften", is not against a dialogue in principle. But he is not happy with the idea of Muslims praying in the cathedral where Catholic Mass and only Catholic Mass is celebrated. He rejected the idea, arguing that it would "only generate confusion among the faithful" and promote "religious indifference".

The Lord's prayer in Mecca?

Francisco Alcalde is the head of the city's influential lay brotherhoods, which are currently preparing for their spectacular Holy Week processions. He chose a more drastic turn of phrase, describing Escudero's public prayer session as a "provocation". He added: "We wouldn't even think of going to Mecca and saying the Lord's Prayer there." The way he sees it is: "Each in his own house and God in them all."

Interior of the Mezquita (photo: Wikipedia Commons)
Now a Roman Catholic cathedral, the Mezquita used to be the second-largest mosque in the world. "Mesquita" is Spanish for "mosque"

​​But the Mezquita, meaning Great Mosque, is a very special house. It was built on the foundations of a Roman-era Janus temple. When the Spanish colony was Christianised along with the Roman Empire, a Romanesque church was built on the site. The Arabs arriving in the eighth century used the old stones and a great deal of new marble to build an architectural wonder with four hundred columns, the largest and most beautiful mosque outside of Mecca.

The Christian victors set a new church into the heart of the building, with a magnificent high altar, choir stalls and side chapels – sacrificing many of the columns in a triumphant gesture. In the 15th century, Charles V. gave his permission for a Gothic extension. But the emperor had never seen the mosque until he later visited Córdoba and saw the clash of competing styles, by which time it was too late. He could only express his regret in hindsight: "If only I'd known..."

Francisco Franco's special guest

In the centuries since the fall of Granada and the end of the reconquista in 1492, the ban on Muslims worshipping on the site has not always been strictly observed. In 1974, one guest of the state was certainly allowed to pray before the beautiful mihrab (i.e. the niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca that Muslims should face when praying) in Córdoba.

The man was Saddam Hussein, who had previously dined with the dictator Francisco Franco and obtained his generous dispensation to worship in the cathedral.

And the following years in democratic Spain, when a new variation of the "reconquista" by Arab oil sheikhs concentrated on the holiday paradise of Marbella, also saw Saudi princes kneeling before the prayer niche in the Mezquita.

The "Alliance of Civilisations"

A year ago, Mansur Escudero decided to apply for the Great Mosque to be opened to local Muslims – a few thousand in Córdoba – inspired by the "Alliance of Civilisations". The alliance is a project to forge understanding between cultures, founded by Spain's socialist prime minister José Luis Zapatero and his Turkish partner Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Escudero wrote to the prime minister, suggesting an "ecumenical transformation" not only of the Mezquita, but also of Istanbul's Hagia Sofia, which is currently closed for all religious purposes.

He wrote a second letter with the same message to Pope Benedict XVI. When Escudero heard that the Pope had held a discreet prayer in the Blue Mosque during his visit to Turkey, he felt his suggestion was confirmed. But he has not yet received a reply from either man.

As if the matter weren't complicated enough already, the chairman of the Spanish bishops' conference and Bishop of Bilbao, Ricardo Blázquez, has got himself tangled up in it. Shortly before Christmas he made a well-meaning but casual comment: "I don't see any problem if a few Muslims go in and pray before the mihrab."

But someone in the Vatican, the bishops' conference or even both obviously did see a problem.

Blázquez's comment was corrected a day later by a communiqué issued by his organisation, stating that the bishop "neither recommended nor recommends" that Muslims should pray in the mosque-cathedral. To be on the safe side, the statement added that "the sole authority on this matter" is the Bishop of Córdoba, "under the direct authority of the Holy See."

The hassles of local politics

Where there's controversy, there are of course local politicians. But delicately enough, Córdoba is governed by the "United Left", an alliance of Greens and Communists who tend to react very sensitively to what they think their largely Catholic electorate wants. The Communists and Socialists in the town hall didn't want to burn their fingers, and formulated a meaningless resolution that prayer in the mosque should be a question for a "dialogue between the religions" and not the city administration.

Córdoba's top communist functionary, Enrique Centella, however, let down his guard to refer to Mansur Escudero's demonstration as a "circus" and Escudero himself as a "clown". Centella himself, he emphasised, has no prejudices about Catholics and Muslims. He and his comrades are namely "neither one nor the other."

While the local politicians kept a wary eye on the 27 May, when the city's Catholic brotherhoods and all their relatives are set to cast their votes, the general coordinator of the Allied Left in far-off Madrid, Gaspar Llamazares, argued his way precisely around the feeling on the ground in Andalusia. He saw the Muslims' wish to pray in the Mezquita as a "legitimate option" and advised the city to work towards "respect for all" across the religions.

While those who share his opinion have now invited Catholics and Muslims to "inter-religious prayers" in a small "active" mosque near Córdoba, Mansur Escudero has "parked" his initiative for the time being, for the sake of peace. The Islamic Council has stated that they won't abandon their "just demand", but will leave it be for a while. But the council did have an election recommendation at hand for the faithful. It advised them to vote for "progressive parties such as the Socialists and Communists".

"We wouldn't even think of saying the Lord's Prayer in Mecca," says a Catholic brother.

Leo Wieland

© FAZ/ 2007

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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